December 16, 2003 - From the December, 2003 issue

Ambassador College Plans Pose Political Challenge For Pasadena

Last year, The Planning Report interviewed the Worldwide Church of God on their plans to develop the Ambassador College campus in Pasadena into an urban village. Earlier this year, WWCG's master developer, Shea Homes, severed ties with the Church. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Pasadena City Councilmember Steve Madison, a partner at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges, in which he discusses the status of the project, the politics that surround the proposed Ambassador College development, and the future prospects for the storied Ambassador Auditorium.

Steve, you represent, on the Pasadena City Council, the district surrounding the Ambassador College campus. Last year, TPR spoke with a representative of the Worldwide Church of God, owners of the property, about their plans for development. Could you bring us up to date with respect to the project's ambitions, planning and timeline?

In a way, we're back to square one. We recently learned that Shea Homes, the developer that had been partnering with the Church to make a proposal to the city of Pasadena about developing the property, was ending their involvement in the project. Although the Church has indicated its willingness to go forward with the proposal such as it is, that's a setback that will invariably result in some delays and some uncertainty in the near future.

As it was described for our Planning Report readers a year ago, the development of Ambassador's campus is really two projects in one. Please elaborate on the status of the plans that were being developed by Ambassador College's owners and Shea Homes?

The property is quite large, especially for a city the size of Pasadena, which is typically described as having been fully built out. It's a 48-acre parcel in total, but it really is comprised of two parcels. There is an east campus, which is just to the east of what we call the "stump" of the Long Beach Freeway, that is about 14 acres. The 34 acre west campus is principally in residential neighborhoods in west Pasadena, bordered by major streets like Orange Grove, Green, and Del Mar.

There was a proposal three or four years ago by the Church and Legacy Partners to build 1600 or 1700 hundred housing units on both campuses. In the eyes of many in the community, that was a nonstarter because of what it meant for traffic, congestion, density, and its impact on the existing nature of the neighborhood. As a result, that plan went through some iterations and some reductions.

In mid-2002 Legacy walked away from the project, and the Church announced that Shea Homes was coming on board. There was then a proposal for slightly fewer units, about 1500, which, again, was greeted with skepticism by some in the community. Now, with Shea having walked away from the project, we're left to wonder what the Church's plans are and whether there is someone with expertise and experience in real estate development that's going to help shepherd this proposal onward.

Could you describe the politics of land use planning in Pasadena, especially for a large project sitting, as it does, in the midst of one of the city's most developed and organized communities?

It's a fascinating case study in urban planning and local government politics. The district that I represent is an affluent district with high incomes and mostly single family homes in the beautiful neighborhoods of west Pasadena. There is a whole community of high-end multifamily, along Orange Grove for example, and then along some of the other thoroughfares.

Politically, Pasadena is a fascinating community. The old image of the little old lady in tennis shoes and it being a very conservative bastion is really no longer the reality. We have a council and mayor of eight members, with six Democrats and two Republicans (although these are, of course, nonpartisan positions). We also have very strong neighborhood associations in Pasadena. There are 140,000 residents and 97 neighborhood associations, virtually all of which are extremely well organized and active. The neighborhoods surrounding the Worldwide Church of God's Ambassador College property is represented by the largest and most powerful neighborhood association in the city, the West Pasadena Residents Association (WPRA). They've already consulted their own urban planners and lawyers about this project, and we're not even sure yet what the application is going to look like. I've joked with my friends at the WPRA to at least wait until I make a decision before they sue me on this! But that's in jest–they really have the best interests of the neighborhood and the community at heart, and they speak for a lot of our residents.

Last year's TPR interview with the leadership of the Worldwide Church of God was widely read in Pasadena. Your reaction to that interview and the Church's plans and monetary expectations for the Ambassador College site would be most welcome.

I think Robert Frost probably said it best, "many miles before we sleep." There continues to be a lot of skepticism in Pasadena about this project and how it is going to affect the quality of life of the current residents. Coincidentally or not, this project comes along at a time when we're dealing with unprecedented pressure in Pasadena to develop more housing units. That pressure comes from a lot of places. The state tells us that to meet our benchmarks we should be increasing the housing inventory that we have. We have enormous pressure, politically and policy-wise, to create more affordable housing in Pasadena. Finally, and these are all related, Pasadena is thriving, and it's viewed as an extremely positive place to reside and do business. Our land values continue to just go up, so there's enormous economic pressure on the part of developers and property owners to develop their parcels. We've had over a thousand units of housing built in the last four or five years.

The communities are really concerned. The current residents are asking, where is this obligation to grow to the point where you have to wait through three red lights just to get through a major intersection? I agree with them. I have said repeatedly, I don't agree that we have any legal or moral obligation to continue to absorb all the new residents that our region is attracting. This project, obviously, would introduce many new residents, new residences, traffic, and congestion and threaten the quality of our life. It presents a lot of challenges.

In addition there's also the history here, which is that for at least the last 15 or 20 years we have this huge parcel of property which hasn't really been occupied. So, fairly or unfairly, the community has gotten used to this huge, well-maintained open space. Part of my job as the councilmember has been to stress to the community that the question is not whether there is going to be change, but what that change is going to be. This is private property, and there are clearly some rights to develop it. I can't tell you how many of my constituents have come up to me and said, "Steve, why don't you make that property a music conservatory?" Or, "Why don't we establish an architecture school there?" My answer is always the same: "That's a great idea. You meet me at City Hall with a check, and I'll have the press there and we'll make this announcement." I'm always greeted with this sort of puzzled look; I then have to explain that this is private property. The city doesn't own Ambassador College and the city doesn't control completely what will be done there.

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The City of Pasadena has an inclusionary housing ordinance in effect, and affordable housing has been proposed on the Ambassador College site. How, if at all do the two connect? How successful, in your opinion, has the city's inclusionary zoning ordinance been to date?

Last year, we did adopt a very progressive inclusionary zoning ordinance which requires developers of housing projects (of a certain size) to include a percentage of affordable units in one of a number of different categories, or to pay an "in lieu" fee to the city housing fund, which we can then use to construct affordable housing elsewhere. There's also another method in which you can construct affordable housing at a nearby site, but somewhere close to the project that you're developing. We don't know yet what the Church will propose for their affordable housing component, but we know in prior proposals the idea was that they would actually construct some affordable housing on site. So we'll look forward to seeing how the Church measures up on that criteria with whatever project comes forward.

On the campus is the well know Ambassador Auditorium, which, most assume, will be part of whatever plan comes forward. Is this true?

The Ambassador Auditorium has a very proud tradition in Pasadena. It is a first-rate, 1,200-seat concert hall, with marvelous acoustics and top-notch architecture and ambiance. Unfortunately, as the Church has implicitly recognized by not having events there for a number of years, it is not an economically viable operation. So, we're searching for a way to preserve the auditorium, both for its architectural significance and for the cultural contribution that it can make as a functioning auditorium. But, at the same time, we recognize that in so doing the owner is going to lose $1 million or $2 million a year.

There are a lot of moving parts here. We have a nascent foundation board that's been established, consisting of high net worth individuals who are willing to contribute some of their own money and raise funds to support the ongoing operations of the auditorium.

You are well aware that a number of local ballot initiatives intended to overturn City Council approvals of housing developments have qualified in recent years in California. Clearly, representative government is suspect and under attack; the successful gubernatorial recall election being the ultimate example. Your perspective, as a councilman in a city of 140,000, on the role and value of representative government would be welcome? What's the potential for people just giving up on local government and relying on direct democracy to resolve public problems?

In Pasadena, our model features part-time citizen volunteer representatives. It wasn't that long ago in Pasadena that our City Council was actually called the Board of Directors. Even today, it is not unlike sitting on a board, as opposed to being a full-time politician. The model is supposed to be for people like myself, who have full-time jobs and family obligations, but are representative of the neighborhood and the residents for whom they speak at City Hall. Obviously, we have a lot of big, important issues going on in Pasadena, and at times I question the viability of that model just given the shear amount of time it takes to be fully versed in the issues that one faces. I could easily spend 60 or 70 hours a week just on city business.

However, the community appreciates and respects our form of local government, and I don't think we're ever going to ever change this model. We've never faced some of the issues, thankfully, that other communities have faced of political corruption or the notion that council members are really looking for the next political job to run for, or the major campaign funding and financing issues that other places face. The comment that I'm told most often as I go out and talk to community groups is "Thank you for doing this." So, it's an honor to serve and it's very appreciated by the community.

One last question. Local media recently noted that the City of Los Angeles has has completed its EIR for the Coliseum, and believes it's ahead of Pasadena in the hunt for an NFL franchise. Pasadena obviously favors the Rose Bowl, so your assessment of where the competing cities and venues are today would be instructive.

We're trying just to focus on our proposal. We think that the Rose Bowl offers the best platform for what the National Football League wants to offer in the Los Angeles region. So, we're not going to talk negatively about anybody else's proposal. In Pasadena, we don't view the NFL as a new relationship. We've had five Super Bowls at the Rose Bowl and we have very fond memories of those, as I hope does the League. The League hasn't had the best experience at the Coliseum, but they certainly are very familiar with that venue as well.

We're in the process of doing our own environmental impact report. In Pasadena, we can't turn it around quite as quickly, apparently, as they are able to in Los Angeles, but that's fine. We want this to be an open, deliberative process. Our understanding is the NFL is fine with that, and that sometime next year we'll have the EIR in hand and we'll be able to then proceed to the next step-negotiating a deal to have the NFL play in Pasadena once again.

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